Collective Memory in the Plays of Nilo Cruz

Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Nilo Cruz's Sotto Voce. Photo: Jonathan Slaff.
Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Nilo Cruz's Sotto Voce. Photo: Jonathan Slaff.
Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Nilo Cruz’s Sotto Voce. Photos by Jonathan Slaff.

Nilo Cruz, who in 2003 became the first Latino writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, uses lyrical language to create a sense of atmosphere and often to transport the audience to sites of collective memory. The play that won him the Pulitzer, Anna in the Tropics, for example, is set in a cigar factory in 1929 Cuba, where a lector, or teacher, reads Anna Karenina aloud to the workers, igniting new personal dynamics. In Beauty of the Father, site is less crucial than situation as poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, executed during the Spanish Civil War, wafts in from the afterlife to open the play.

In Sotto Voce, Cruz’s new play, running at Theater for the New City through March 9, the playwright sites a ship: the M.S. St. Louis, which in 1939, three months before the start of World War II, carried 900 Jewish refugees from Germany to the Americas. It wouldn’t be Cruzian to offer an overt dramatization of how the leaders of Cuba, the U.S. and Canada refused their ports to the ship, forcing the St. Louis back to Europe and thus consigning most of its passengers to death by the Nazis. But the playwright does imagine Saquiel, a man of Jewish-Cuban extraction whose great-aunt was aboard the ill-fated ship. In Saquiel’s quest to learn more about the ship, he encounters Bemadette, a prominent, elderly, German-born novelist whose lost lover was aboard the vessel. And an unlikely “metaphysical love affair” ensues.

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For tickets to Sotto Voce, click here.

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And now, 5 questions Nilo Cruz has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
A young student at the University of Michigan asked if there was spirituality in my work. It is a question that has always stayed with me. I don’t think I ask myself this question in a literal sense, but I do believe that theatre and most works of art have the capacity to get us in touch with our humanity, and when we get in touch with our humanity we come closer to our spirituality.

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Cruz control.
Cruz control.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I am often asked the following: what do I want the audience to take with them after seeing one of my plays? It is a difficult question to answer, since I cannot dictate how a person should feel or react to a play.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
It was not a question but more of a statement full of ignorance. I was presenting my translation and adaptation of Calderon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream at South Coast Repertory at Costa Mesa, California. This play is from the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre, and Calderon is regarded as one of Spain’s foremost dramatists and one of the finest playwrights of world literature. A man who was part of the audience at a panel discussion of the play could not understand why this classic was being presented at Costa Mesa.  I did not want to hurt his feelings when he expressed his aversion to having this play be part of this theatre’s season. When I heard his commentary, the only thing I could think of asking this señor was whether he also felt that Picasso and Matisse should not be exhibited in California, because they were not from that part of the world.

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Barchiesi and Andhy Mendez, as Saquiel.
Barchiesi with Andhy Mendez, as Saquiel.

4) How did the story of the M.S. St. Louis come to your attention? How did your awareness of it lead you to the storyline of Sotto Voce? How did the characters suggest themselves?
My friend Mario Ernesto Sanchez, who is a producer and theatre director, suggested that I should write about the St. Louis. At the beginning I felt very uncomfortable with the subject matter since I am not Jewish. But since Cuba was one of the countries that turned away this German ship carrying more 900 Jewish refugees and has never apologized for it, I felt it was necessary to write about this sad and tragic event. Some might think of the play as being a form of apology for this moment in history, but I am more interested in identifying the permanence of memory through the characters of Sotto Voce.

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I was able to enter the world of this play through the character of Saquiel, a young student, who is doing research on the St. Louis passengers. Through him I encountered the fiction novelist Bemadette Kahn, my own creation, whose lover was traveling on the St. Louis. At the beginning I thought the play was only going to take place in 1939, the time of the crossing. Then the writing began to change and I allowed it to take its own course. This is how I ended up with the current draft.

5) Your work makes innovative, liberal use of memory and imagination—their power, their passion, their capacity for healing but also self-deception. As a playwright, what mysteries do memory and imagination hold for you? Do memory and imagination free or inspire you as a writer?
For me the act of writing is getting in touch with the subconscious mind, the realm of dreams and imagination. I am not interested in documentary theatre. I do engage in research and exploration, but I use my investigation as a means to fuel the imagination and as a way of questioning reality. The story of the St. Louis is a point of departure, the beginning of the journey in the vast distance between God and man. I write in order to enter the latitudes of this distance, the breath of space. It is prayer that leads us to God; it is writing that leads us to the unknown, the dark night of the soul.

When the character of Bemadette Khan in Sotto Voce takes on the identity of her Jewish lover, who was killed in war, this act becomes a metaphor for grief, pain and loss.  It is also a way of honoring the victims of war through the persistence of memory. I have been told that the Spanish Jews who settled in Sarajevo kept the keys to the houses they had left in Spain, and these keys were passed on from generation to generation. For me these keys symbolize the determination and obedience of memory.

Bonus question:

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6) The leaders of Cuba, the U.S. and Canada all refused to let those 900-plus Jews on their soil after St. Louis voyaged across the Atlantic. Can you see a play in which these leaders—Federico Laredo Brú, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and William L. Mackenzie King—meet in the afterlife to atone for their decision? Could such a play be dramatically plausible?
I imagine this would make an interesting play. It might be food for thought for another writer. Writing always promises possibility and offers meaning to all things that have occurred.